Grace Presbyterian Church
December 23, 2018, Advent 4C
Luke 1:39-55 (note: since much of the rest of the chapter is referenced in the sermon, the whole chapter is linked)
The Disruptive Part (Or, What Mary Did In Fact Know)
Have you ever heard of the Bechdel test?
The Bechdel test is an informal one, typically applied to movies or works of fiction, that asks of that work two (or sometimes three) questions, to determine if the work has any sort of substantial female characters at all or is simply overrun with dominating males and subservient females. It’s amazing, to be honest, how many movies don’t manage to get an affirmative answer to the two or three questions that follow:
- are there two women in the film (or story) who actually talk to each other without a man around?
- do they talk about something other than a man?
- (sometimes added) do we actually know the women’s names?
It’s a fairly minimal test, to be sure. One conversation between two women doesn’t necessarily change the balance of power in a movie or novel by any means, but that half of the films that get released, on average, don’t even manage to have one such scene in them is pretty amazing.
While the Bible is by no means a work of fiction, it’s pretty heavily male-dominated, if we’re honest about it. For much of the scripture that’s kind of inevitable – Jesus, after all, is pretty much the whole point of the gospels. But today’s reading is pretty remarkable for being exactly that kind of scene described above – two women, Elizabeth and her young relative Mary, in a conversation with each other, no men around (Zechariah doesn’t seem to be present, and even if he were he couldn’t interrupt), and not merely talking about those men. It’s a remarkable enough scene that perhaps we ought to pay attention to it and what is said.
Both of these women have had an adventurous first chapter of Luke already. Elizabeth, a woman well advanced in years, has now been pregnant for six months after the angel Gabriel announced to her priest husband, Zechariah, that the two of them would bear a most important young boy, specifically to be named John. This son would be “great in the sight of the Lord” (1:15) and who would “make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (1:17). Zechariah didn’t respond well to the angelic announcement, and as a result was struck mute; he would only get his voice back after the child’s birth, when he managed to confirm the angel’s command in writing and got his voice back.
Perhaps deciding after that incident it would be better to go directly to the woman involved, Gabriel next appeared to Mary, announcing to her (1:26-38, immediately preceding this passage) that she would bear an even more important son. This son is to be named Jesus. Gabriel rattles off a rather substantial list of characteristics that will be attributed to him: he will be great, called Son of the Most High, receive the throne of David, reign over the house of Jacob (i.e. Israel) forever, have an unending kingdom, will be holy, and will be called the Son of God. She also learns of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. While Mary is seriously perplexed by all this, and does have to wonder how this will all work since she and Joseph aren’t even living together much less married, she avoids Zechariah’s mistake and actively gives her consent to what the angel has announced (in a modern movie, her reply would probably be something like “all right, let’s do this”).
So, by the time Mary makes her way to Elizabeth’s house, she’s already been pretty well informed about what’s going on. She will learn more about all this in her encounter with Elizabeth, some of it in a most unexpected and unusual way. Elizabeth literally gets a kick out of Mary’s presence, thanks to that infant in her heretofore-barren womb.
I obviously cannot pretend to know what that sensation would be like, but I’m guessing that those of you who have experienced such gymnastics from a child in the womb probably didn’t have an experience of the Holy Spirit and prophetic utterance immediately afterwards. That’s what happens to Elizabeth, though – she (not the child in the womb) was “filled with the Holy Spirit” and let out an exultation of praise to God and celebration of this young woman before her. In Elizabeth’s words, Mary was to be “blessed among women” and the “mother of my Lord” and in particular blessed because she “believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord” through Gabriel.
As if all that wasn’t enough to overwhelm Mary, there was more to come from the Holy Spirit. It was Mary’s turn to speak, and she clearly shows that she’s been paying attention not only to the messages she has received from Gabriel and Elizabeth, but to the history of her people.
Her song (Luke likes to make such utterances into songs) begins with praise to God, appropriately enough. She acknowledges that she’s not exactly a person of great status, and yet God has chosen to bless her with this extraordinary event.
Then things get interesting.
Here Mary becomes, at least for these few moments, a prophet. What she sings here is rich with echoes of those prophets of old in Israel and Judah, declarations of the Lord’s favor for the unfavored. God’s mercy is for those who fear God (and by implication not for those who don’t). God has “scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts” (but not the humble). God has brought down the mighty, and lifted up the lowly. God has filled the hungry, and “sent the rich away empty.”
This really is the language of prophecy, from Isaiah to Jeremiah to Ezekiel and Amos and Micah and on through Malachi. God overturns our world, upsetting what we tend to think of as “the natural order of things,” or even more resignedly “the way things are.” A world in which the powerful and rich trample over the poor and powerless is not God’s world – not in the prophets, and not in Mary’s song. Our way of living gets disrupted and turned upside down – or perhaps, in God’s view, turned rightside up.
Mary knew plenty. And if we truly listen to it, it might make us uncomfortable, with the vast majority of us here being much more “the rich” in Mary’s world than “the hungry.”
Maybe that’s why it has become so popular to sing this song that keeps asking “Mary, did you know?” It keeps asking her about all sorts of cool stuff that does happen in the life of Jesus – walking on water, healing a blind man, calming a storm. It goes on to all these grand attributes that are going to be – Lord of all creation, one day rule the nations. Somehow, though, that song manages to avoid this uncomfortable stuff that Mary very clearly knows and has very plainly told us right here in Luke’s gospel. It doesn’t somehow get around to the stuff that, in Mary’s song, isthe gospel – the “good news.”
Maybe what we most need, as Advent rapidly segues into Christmas, is to listen more diligently and more honestly to Mary’s song. Maybe we should even sing Mary’s song, and not just in the form of the next hymn. Maybe it should be something we make a part of our song, this celebration and exultation of the overturning and disrupting God.
In the end, maybe we should listen more to what these women, Elizabeth and Mary, have to say to us, through the Holy Spirit, in this most unusual text of scripture.
For Mary’s very real song, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise noted): #—, When Isaiah Spoke a Word; #88, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel (v. 1-4); #100, My Soul Cries Out With a Joyful Shout; #88, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel (v. 5-7)